After the American Revolution ended, the State of Virginia wanted to honor its most renowned son with a commemorative statue.
Finding A Worthy Artist
Fine art and fine artists were a rarity in Colonial America, perhaps because people were more concerned with survival and earning a living than they were with fine accouterments. The earliest American artists of stature, John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West, began their careers in the US, but relocated to London, where their talents and skills would be better appreciated – at least financially.
But Virginia, in the process of building a State House in its new capital in Richmond, wanted to honor General Washington with a statue. There was no prestigious sculptor in America in 1782, so they asked Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, representing the new country in Europe, if they could make appropriate recommendations.
It was Thomas Jefferson who suggested Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), one of the foremost sculptors on the continent, and who had already created busts of Jefferson, Franklin and Voltaire. The Virginia legislature was amenable, and likewise commissioned Philadelphian Charles Willson Peale, the foremost artist in America, to paint a full length portrait of the famous general.
Houdon was eager to sculpt George Washington, France’s ally and successful hero. But he insisted that even the finest painted portrait would not be sufficient enough a likeness for his work. He insisted that he must travel to America and undertake Washington’s exact measurements personally.
Houdon Visits Mount Vernon
The State of Virginia agreed to commission the great French sculptor, including paying for (and insuring) his ocean voyage to and from America. George
Washington also agreed, and was pleased to extend the hospitality of his estate at Mount Vernon.
Houdon came with his assistants, his notebooks and casting materials, his measuring tapes and whatever other tools he required. Washington made time and allowed the artist to measure every inch from the length of his nose to the circumference of his fingers. Then Houdon made a plaster mask of the General’s face, by having Washington lay still for several hours with a plaster concoction on his face. He inserted hollow straws in Washington’s nostrils so he could breathe. The plaster face-mask would go back to Paris with Houdon. So would the terra cotta bust the sculptor made of the General.
Discussions then ranged about “how” this life size sculpture would be presented. It had been fashionable for centuries to garb the honorees in classical style – togas or Biblical robes, or the armor plate of a thousand years before. Houdon wished to portray the General as he truly was, garbed in the clothing of his own time. It was a revolutionary idea – suited to the hero of the Revolution, who preferred that image as well.
The Classical and the Timeless
Houdon’s decision to present a “modern” Washington in his own clothing was accepted, but the sculptor was still deeply entrenched in the classical style adorned with the symbolism of art. He needed to present the “Cincinnatus” Washington. The civilian who took up arms for his country, became a hero, and then returned to his civilian life. A balance of war and peace. The accoutrements of the sculpture were not only accepted as essential, but they would also tell the story.
Washington is clothed in his uniform, but carries a civilian walking stick. He rests his hand on a bundle of rods, the Roman symbol of civilian authority. Of course there were thirteen rods in the bundle, symbolic of the thirteen States. The symbolic arrows are still reasons for conjecture, although some historians believe it represented the “wildness” of America. His farmer’s plow and his sword are behind him.
It would take the better part of five years for the life-sized sculpture to be completed, carved from fine Carrera marble, and exactly to the measurements Houdon made of his subject. The statue itself stands six-foot-two-and-a-half inches, including the half-inch for the heel of Washington’s boots. It also stands upon a Houdon-produced pedestal which gives heroic height to the image.
It was delivered to the State of Virginia in pieces, where it was assembled somewhere around 1791, and placed in the Rotunda of the Virginia State House in Richmond, where it remains today.
Emulating the Original
There is never any assurance against Mother Nature, and the Virginia Legislature was understandably concerned that fire, or damage to the rotunda roof might also destroy the statue. They commissioned bronze reproductions to be cast of the original, in case of any permanent damage. Between 1840 and 1910, additional casts were made, and today there are 33 life size reproductions housed at various locations across the country, notably in New York City, the University of Virginia, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
But the original, the one sculpted by Jean-Antoine Houdon himself, exactly measured from life and still considered by those who knew him, the most accurate likeness of George Washington, still stands in its original location: in the Rotunda of the Virginia State House in Richmond.
Cunliffe, Marcus – George Washington: Man and Monument – Little, Brown, 1958